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Facing My Own Character: When a Fiction Writer Turns to Memoir

Reflections of God's Love oil paintingImage by Ruth Gee

A week after my family and I fled Bali and flew back to the states, I met my literary agent for lunch at Todd English’s Olives restaurant. Over fig and prosciutto flatbread, we talked about my future. I asked him if he thought I should continue writing my new novel about a character who can’t smell, or if I should rewrite the one that garnered ten rejections and sent me scurrying off to Bali in the first place.

“Neither,” he replied. “You should write the Bali book.”

“What’s the ‘Bali book’?”

“Come on, those emails you sent—the ones about the snake hunter, and the cremations? They were hilarious.”

“Yeah, but who cares that a forty-something woman ran away to Bali and almost lost her marriage because she was such a—”

“Did you?” He wiped his mouth and threw his napkin down.

“Did I—what?”

“Did you lose your marriage or did you and Victor fall more in love? What really happened?”

“Well, I guess I learned—”

“Don’t tell me. Tell them,” he said, pointing at a foursome of women munching on beet salads at the table next to us. “Tell them,” he said gesturing out the window to the pedestrians passing by. “It’s everyone’s story. Everyone who ever thought it’d be the greatest thing in the world to move to Bali.”

“But it wasn’t great. It didn’t turn out at all like I wanted it to.”

“Really? I’m not so sure,” he said as he stood to put on his jacket. “I hear Vermont winters are really long,” he added before swirling out the revolving door.

As I watched him disappear into the swarm of humanity down East 17th Street, I thought back to our time in Bali—to the lovely people, our crazy bamboo hut, the ants, the heat and the monkeys. Sure, it was chaotic and horrible, but it was also pretty fantastic. 

gardenpath

Should I tell the Bali story?

More to the point: I’ve been writing fiction ever since I discovered I had a talent for creating imaginary worlds out of thin air. Now my agent was suggesting I write nonfiction.

Could I tell the Bali story?

I mean, how would I do that? I usually get inspired to write a new book when a long-forgotten memory, a glance at a photograph, or something in the news cuts in line in my crowded brain. If it’s dressed nicely and smells good, I unlock the red velvet rope and usher it over to the table reserved for NOVEL IDEAS.Velvet-rope

I order the IDEA a few drinks and get it to let its hair down. Then I look around the room and invite some other CHARACTERS to join us, and now the conversation gets loud and heated; all of us yelling over each other to be heard. What do you do for work? What motivates you to get out of bed in the morning? Are you afraid of heights? Do you believe in God?

I push us out onto the dance floor, where I sweat and sashay to the ever-changing beats until I figure out genre, point of view, setting.

By the time it’s last call and the musicians are winding their electrical cords into tight loops, I’m ready to funnel this bubbling brew of imaginary people and their adventures onto the blank page.

But…if I were to write THE BALI BOOK, I couldn’t make up a main character—I’d  have to be the main character.

I wouldn’t be able to invent a supporting cast. I’d need to write honestly about real people.

And forget about fashioning dramatic scenes out of thin air. Memoir dictates that I deliver meticulously re-enacted accounts of what really happened.

I’d have to bow to the goddess of TRUTH and promise to be faithful.

Writing nonfiction—writing about me—meant taking an IDEA to a different venue altogether. No drinks or frenzied dancing. I’d need to sit it down and stare deeply into its eyes.

So, I took the Bali idea to a quiet café and ordered up a few double lattes. I reminisced with it. Read over myriad emails. Forced my mind to recollect, in as much detail as possible, the thousands of conversations I had while I lived in Bali. I replayed my days waking up covered in sweat, spraying my daughter’s clothes with DEET, fighting with my husband, trying to write, walking through the jungle.

I gazed deeply into my own navel. MeMEME

And you know what? I hated it. I hated thinking about me and talking about me and writing about me.

I lied to the Bali idea, saying I had to run out to a doctor’s appointment, and instead went home and wrote a novel about a sex-hating housewife who lets her husband have affairs, then uses the details to write bestselling erotica.erotica book

Making up Goodlove felt wildly freeing and refreshing. I was giddy, I was, allowing utter strangers to take up residence in my psyche, traipsing and tramping through my imagination like a bunch of drunk teenagers who’ve broken into their high school on a Saturday night. I loved having them inside me, plotting, scheming, writing, talking, eating, screwing.

After I sent it to my (now new) agent, I returned to the café where I found the Bali idea still sitting where I’d left it.

“Hi there, Bali story,” I said. “Sorry I left you for so long.”

“No worries,” it replied with a huge smile. “I knew you’d come back.” It straightened up in the chair, shoulders back, poised for action.

Resigned, I held out my hand. It placed its hand in mine and gave it a firm squeeze. “Ready?” it asked.

“Sure,” I said, because this time I was. This time I knew I could give the Bali idea my full attention. Whether it was because I’d gotten another novel out of my system, or because enough time had passed, or because I was actually starting to think I had a really rich story to tell, I couldn’t say. What I did know for sure was that my agent was right: I should tell the Bali story.

More to the point, I could tell the Bali story.

And I’m really glad I did.

A Rose By Any Other Name

couchfriends

A few weeks ago my dear friend Marcella took a nasty spill whilst walking in the forest (she is British so I have to say whilst). As she took a step forward on the muddy ground, her right foot slid, and then, in a feat of staggering anatomical gymnastics, it flipped over onto its top side. She heard the sound of bones cracking before her body even hit the ground.

In the ER, she learned that she’d suffered a bimalleolar fracture (four breaks), and was told she would need to keep the leg raised above her heart for at least two weeks, to help reduce the swelling.ankle

At the end of two weeks, she underwent a 4-hour surgery, during which time a steel plate and eleven screws were inserted into her ankle. She spent the night in the hospital, bore the indignity of hospital garb, but greatly enjoyed the fresh and spicy Thai soup they offered her for lunch.

Once back home, Marcella settled again into her frustratingly immobile couch-bound existence. No longer could she go on long evening walks through the nearby Intervale Farms with her husband, Jack, and their dog, Jasmine. There would be no hiking or biking or camping or, any number of outings she and her family had planned for their much-deserved summer break.

Though I am overwhelmed by both the impending release of my memoir, as well as my mother’s rapid decline into dementia, I’ve tried to get over to her house as much as possible to keep her company. There’s something sort of magical about just sitting around with a friend bullshitting about this and that. We don’t do this enough, do we?

You can really get to know a person better when they’re rooted to one spot, like Marcella presently is. Before the accident, Marcella was always working. Her job is all about helping other people have better lives, so she always feels there is more to do.

Now, I don’t have to talk to her while she’s driving or doing dishes or walking beside me or meeting me for a quick 15-minute coffee. I can just look at her face and be with her. In the moment. And here’s what I’ve learned about Marcella these past weeks: she’s not angry or sad or resentful or self-pitying. She’s suffered this awful break with the sort of grace I know I would be never be able to emulate. Additionally, I was surprised to discover that she’s not lost her biting sense of humor.

Nor her generous spirit.

On one of my last visits I’d bought her a new kind of chocolate bar chocolatefrom the co-op—dark chocolate with ginger, lemon, and black pepper. She snapped off a square, placed it on her tongue, and grinned with the sly satisfaction of a mistress who’d just been told her lover is finally leaving his wife.

I said something about how certain flavors can do that—ginger, for instance always comforts me, whether in a stir-fry or tea or salad—it warms my spirit. This reminded me of a funny scene in my new book, Rash, where I am talking to Seni, our cook, about a character in the novel I was writing:

As she scooped what looked like a succulent mixture of tempeh, mushrooms, spices and things like galangal and lemongrass into the leaf sections, she asked me how my writing was going.

“It’s fine.”

“You are telling stories about Bali?”

“No. I’m writing about a man who can’t smell.”

“Why he no smell?” she asked as she pinched in one side of the leaf square, then the other, folding over the flap and securing the two ends with bamboo toothpicks. This, in Bali, is referred to as bungkus, which more or less translates into “food in packets.”

“He was born with this genetic—this rare disease, I mean he was sick with this thing  called Kallmann syndrome, and his pituitary gland—the part of his brain where his sense of smell is made—it never formed correctly. It was broken.” 

Where was my Balinese dictionary when I really needed it?

“Oh,” Seni replied. She placed the packets in the bamboo steamer one by one. After she covered it she looked up at me and frowned. “If he no smell, then he no taste the food, and that make him be very very sad, ya?”

No taste? I’d been focusing so long on my protagonist not being able to smell roses or gas leaks or spoiled milk that I’d not bothered to think through anosmia’s other repercussions. “I guess that is true, ya,” I said getting off the stool. “Thanks, Seni.”

I wandered back over to my computer imagining Miles sitting in a restaurant on an awkward first date. First he has to decide what to order based on texture or look. I assumed he’d hate the look of meat, but love fruit, and maybe noodles. Jell-O, for sure, but who orders Jell-O on a first date? Or any date for that matter. Then Rosemary, his date, holds a forkful of something up under his nose and says, “Here smell this; it’s so divine,” and he has to make up a reaction because it’s no different than smelling a dead cow as far as his nose is concerned.

I typed without stopping. I wanted to tell Victor I’d written a few good pages today like I’d promised. I knew that no matter how he felt, or where he was, or how hung over he was, Jack London always wrote twenty-five pages of prose a day.

Heck, if I could slam out two excellent pages a day I’d be self-smitten.

After paraphrasing the scene, I suddenly sat up. “I just remembered something,” I said to Marcella, who, by now had consumed the entire bar of chocolate. “When I was a kid, the parents of one of my friends brought home a jar of rose jelly from Belgium, or France, or somewhere. The stuff inside the jar was this beautiful pink, like glass. I asked my friend if I could taste it and she said no, it was too expensive and too special.”

Before leaving my friend’s house I tiptoed into the kitchen, opened the lid, and dipped a spoon into the soft gel. As I brought it to my nose I was almost overcome by the smell of roses. And then I tasted it and was shocked that it tasted like it smelled. Like a rose. “It was the first time,” I said, “that I realized a smell could be translated into a taste. I’d forgotten all about it until just this second.” Marcella smiled knowingly.

“I mean it was amazing. To be able to TASTE A ROSE. It was one of the best moments of my life, now that I think about it.”

Two days later, this arrived in the mail.

rose2

I’m sorry Marcella broke her ankle. I get that this is a sucky way to spend her summer holiday. I feel sad having to watch her hobble her way to the loo on metal crutches that dig into her palms as she endeavors to hold herself up. I know she misses sleeping in her own bed upstairs, and dinners out in small restaurants where there is no room to buttress her extended leg.

But because my friend was a little clumsy, I get to spend more time with her. Quiet time. Time to reflect on what’s important. Time to share what’s going on in my life with someone who sincerely cares.

Someone who smells as good as she tastes.

Sharing The Love

Sharing-the-Love-002I love to read good writing. I especially love to read good writing when it’s written by someone I know.

Since I’m a writer, lots of my friends and friends of friends and cousins and neighbors have asked me to take a look at something they’ve penned and provide some feedback.

“Hey, I worked really hard on this short story. Do you mind reading it and telling me what you think?”

I almost always say yes, because I want to keep my writing karma sparkling. I mean, I email my works-in-progress to friends all the time, sometimes going so far as to call them ten minutes after I hit SEND, asking them what’s taking so long.

I’m not good at waiting. pizza_delivery_guy_by_floydworx-d4pj0pfLike a hungry seven-year-old awaiting the pizza delivery boy, I dance around on one leg and bounce off walls and chew on my nails until the comments arrive.

Where is he already?

My husband has more than once and fewer than a million times, come home from work and had me thrust a new chapter of my latest novel, or some parenting essay I worked on all day, into his face with the accompanying demand that he “read this now, please.”

He usually sighs, puts his computer down and says, “Can I at least wash my hands first?”

I back off and say sure, impatient as a chicken as I watch him ramble around his bag for his reading glasses and make a cup of tea and look for a good pen with which to scribble edits and opinions.Impatient

And then, while he’s reading, I dance around on one leg and bounce off walls and chew on my nails.

Getting feedback about one’s work is a little like seeing the UPS guy stop in front of your house: the beep-beep-beeping of the parked truck pinging the air; the heavy slam of the door; the quick footsteps as he makes his way up the sidewalk.

What is it? Is it for me? Is it the special cat foot we ordered for our diabetic cat, or is it the printed copy of my new book?

That moment when my husband looks up from the papers. That moment when the brown-uniformed man reaches his arms toward you.

Do I want to hear this? Do I want this package?

I do. I want it, no matter what. No matter what, I want to hear what you think of my efforts. Because I love you and because what you think matters to me.

Even if you’re totally wrong and I fight you on that stupid edit where you think what I wrote sounds trite, but it’s not: it’s funnier than shit.

Sorry, I’m straying off topic.

Truth be told: I like getting less than I like giving. I don’t like hurting people, even the tiniest bit. Constructive criticism is an art; one at which I am still learning how to be good. But when I read something by a friend and it’s good, really good, I am going to be the first in the room to raise my voice and tell them, “Congratulations. This is amazing.”

Which is what I’d like to do right now. For two people. Two writers. Two talented women who make it easy on their friends when they tell you, “Hey, I wrote this…”

Nancy Stearns Bercaw. She wrote a book called Dryland: One Woman’s Swim to Sobriety, and it’s one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read. drylandShe didn’t ask me to read it, but the moment it was out, I bought it. I finished it last night. Nancy is so quiet and gracious in real time that I almost expected her story about her travels, and finding sobriety while living in Abu Dhabi, would be circumspect, quiet. But no: Nancy lets loose (sometimes literally) and gives the reader the truth, the proof, the pudding, and all that went into making it. She’s funny smart and knows how to keep the action boiling along.

Before I read the book I was worried. Whenever a friend writes something, there’s always worry. I knew I was seeing her for lunch next week. What would I say if the book wasn’t good?

In this case, I need not have worried. When I see her, I will say, “Nancy. Your book is fantastic. Your story and your strength touched me. Thank you for writing this book and for letting me read it.”

Friend #2: Aimee Picchi. She’s a journalist mostly, but writes sci-fi and fantasy and assorted other genre stories when she has time. sabinaA few of her pieces have been published, but I’ve not bothered to read any until two days ago. I printed “Only Then Consume Them,” her latest, and read it in bed. The next morning I wrote a comment on her Facebook post. I told her how great the piece was and that I wished it were longer. I let her know without a moment’s hesitation that I wanted more than anything to follow Sabina—her main character—to the ends of the earth, even if it is an earth in turmoil.

Friends are a gift. Friends with gifts are a blessing.

Mother May I?

 

When my husband, Victor, was offered a teaching job at a new school in Bali, I held off sharing the news with my mother for as long as humanly possible. I knew that when I paranoiatold her we were moving her Jew-ish granddaughter to a predominately Muslim country, the arrow on her paranoia meter would swiftly catapult beyond the red zone. I expected her to fret and cry and do all she could to change my mind.

What I didn’t expect, though, was that she would be so wise.

I called her on a Tuesday morning. She listened silently as I recapped the events of the last few weeks: from reading about the school in a magazine, to convincing Victor to send a resume, to his Skype interview, to him flying to Bali to check it out, to him coming back to California with a signed contract.

When I finished speaking, I tensed, waiting for the emotional storm to blow through the phone line. “When will you move?” She asked so calmly I thought perhaps I’d called someone else by mistake.

“In six weeks. We have to find renters and pack up the house and deal with the cat and get a million shots and—” I got so anxious thinking about the list that I cut myself off. “Anyway, we’re really excited. It’s going to be amazing.”

“Loy is only six years old.”

Here it comes, I thought. She’s going to let loose her worries bit by bit, like an IV drip. “So what, she’s six? She’s going to love it. I mean, come on, Mom. It’s Bali!”

“And you’re not troubled by the fact that Muslims hate Jews?” she asked with barely a hint of distress in her voice.

“Mom. That’s ridiculous. Not all Muslims hate all Jews,” I said, swatting away her closed-minded assumption as if it were a gnat. “And besides, most Balinese are Hindu.” I pictured her sitting on her white couch with her hand flung dramatically across her chest like a movie star overcome by shocking news.

All she said next was, “That’s good to know.”

I was beginning to lose patience with her patience. “Okay, well, I’ve got to—”

“Why do you want to move to Bali, Lisa?”

“What?”

“What are you hoping to get out of it?”

I could tell she was getting ready to pounce; to lay bare all the reasons we were making a huge mistake. “I don’t know, Mom. I mean, it’s beautiful and the people are lovely and the school is supposed to be really great so Loy and Victor—”

“Lisa, of course it’s beautiful. Why else would so many people go there for their honeymoon if it wasn’t a beautiful place?”

My suspicions gave way to bewilderment. She didn’t seem upset. She wasn’t trying to talk me out of going. Who the hell had appropriated my mother and replaced her with this unflustered woman? “Then you’re okay with us moving to Bali?” I said, flinching a little out of habit.

“You haven’t answered me, sweetheart. Why do you want to move to Bali?”

I had more important things to do than justify to my uncharacteristically unconcerned mother why I wanted to leave California and create a new life in Southeast Asia with my husband and child. There was sunscreen to buy and dresses to choose and languages to learn. There was money to transfer and people to interview and books to sort.

“Lisa? Are you still there?”

I stared out the window. Twisted my hair around my finger. What was the proper answer? For Victor, I knew moving to Bali would offer up innovative fodder for his middle-school classroom. He’d get to enlighten foreign children; not just Californians.

Loy would make friends from around the world. She’d be immersed in a new culture. Introduced to unfamiliar art, music, food, sights and sounds—a veritable treasure trove for her ever-expanding brain.

But, what about me?

Me, the hippie mother who took too many drugs in the 80s and then worked for Microsoft before getting a well-endowed two-book publishing deal, and then for the life of her couldn’t write her next book.

Me, the brooding bitch who too often wallowed away in her office looking for a distraction.

I wanted to find peace of mind. I wanted to rest assured that I’d seen what there was to see, explored the beyond, and lived to tell about it. I wanted to stop looking over my shoulder, and the shoulders of strangers, so that once and for all I could cease asking What Else Is There?

“If we move to Bali,” I finally said to my mother’s doppelganger, “I will be more mindful. I will find my higher self. I’ll learn to be a better mother and a more loving wife.”

“You can’t do all that where you are?”bali1

“I suppose I can but I think it will be easier in paradise.”

“If you say so.”

Really? I almost shouted into the phone, “MOM! YOU’RE FREAKING ME OUT THAT YOU’RE NOT FREAKING OUT!” but instead I said, “We can talk more tomorrow,” and was about to hang up, when she uttered, “Let me tell you a story I heard once.”

“What? Victor and Loy will be home from school in five minutes. I really gotta go.”

“So this man learns that he’s going to die in a year and he wins this prize or a lottery—I heavenhelldon’t remember exactly—but God and Satan let him come visit heaven and hell to see which one he’ll want to go to when he’s dead.”

“Mom.”

“He goes to heaven and oh, it’s so lovely. Lots of harps and violins. Tuna fish sandwiches being passed around on silver platters. You know, nice.” she said brightly.

heaven  “Mmm-hmm.”

“Then he goes to hell. The gates open and he walks in and sees there’s a big party. Hundreds of gorgeous women are dancing around in skimpy clothes and there’s a band playing his favorite Frankie Valli songs hellpartyand there’s really expensive champagne flowing from a fountain. The man is laughing and dancing and drinking and he has a great time.”

I saw Victor’s car round the bend toward our house. “Okay, so he picks hell to go to when he dies. I get it.”

“Of course he does, and when he finally dies, he shows up and what does he see but fire shooting down from the sky and flames everywhere and people are moaning in pain and the devil is whipping and torturing everyone and it’s just awful. Horrible.”satan

I had no idea where she was going with this.

“‘Satan, I don’t understand,’ the man says. ‘I was here a year ago and it was all so different, so fun. There was music and dancing and—what happened?’ Before unraveling his whip, Satan smiled at the man. ‘Ah, that’s because last time you came as a tourist.’”

I remembered that little tale of hers again while writing the last chapter of RASH, my memoir about moving to—and, ultimately, running away from—Bali. I was reflecting on the how excited and hopeful I felt while flying back to the States. Not because we were finally leaving our Bali nightmare behind, but because I was going to be a tourist; once again experiencing that unfettered wonder one gets when you go on vacation:

Visiting someplace else is way different than living someplace else. Typically, when you go away on a short holiday, you unpack a few belongings, spend some moment-to-moment time tasting the new; peeking at the strange; marveling at the different. If, instead, when you get to your destination, you unpack your books, stock the fridge, hang family photos, and decide to stay awhile, the exoticness eventually evaporates and you’re left with the same issues you had back home. Life in Bali was just life somewhere else.

My mother’s nimble parable was dead on. Much to my surprise, the person I had been in California followed me to Bali, and once we moved into our hut, I no longer danced with scantily-clad women or drank ever-flowing champagne. Instead, I borrowed Satan’s whip and gave myself a good lashing. I constantly worried about Loy getting sick or hurt. I complained about the insects of all nationalities who flew in and out through our wall-less, window-less hut as if jet-setters on a whirlwind tour. I whined about the rancid smoke from smoldering trash and burning corpses that suffocated my lungs and brain. My bitchiness increased by a factor of 18. Victor and I fought so much that he suggested I go back to California. Without him.

abundanceThough it didn’t turn out to be paradise, I believe that going to Bali has made me more grounded. More accepting. My heart is softer. My eyes are wider. My spirit is lighter. I am more grateful than ever for the abundance that surrounds me. I no longer have an untamable itch to go looking for something else to make me happy.

I’m fine just where I am.

Thanks, Mom.

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This post was originally published as a first-person essay on parent co., May 3, 2017.